Friday, December 19, 2014

FilmFriday: Lone Survivor (2013)

Lone Survivor is an excellent film and I definitely recommend seeing it. It is the best of the Iraq/Afghanistan films by far, and there is a reason for that: this film doesn’t impugn the motives of the good guys. That said, however, this is a hard film to watch because of the subject matter. It is hard to see monsters like the Taliban prevail over good men.

Plot

Directed by Peter Berg and staring Mark Wahlberg, Lone Survivor is the true story of a four-man SEAL team reconnaissance mission in Afghanistan during Operation Red Wings, as told by the mission’s sole survivor, Marcus Luttrell. The mission in question was to track down Taliban leader Ahmad Shah, who had masterminded the killing of numerous Marines in the prior weeks.
The film begins by introducing us to the soldiers, who are played by Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsh and Ben Foster, and their support team, which includes Eric Bana as their area leader. The team is then dropped into the mountains in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan. The team locates the village where Shah is believed to be quartered and they begin their observation, though they are having serious communications problems with their home base.

Before the team can move in on Shah, however, a goat herder and his sons come across the SEALs. The SEALs capture them and debate what to do about them. They know that if they let them go, the Afghans will run straight to Shah and report their presence. That will ruin the mission and get them killed. But they can’t hold them prisoner either if they want to accomplish their mission. Thus, a debate begins about killing them. Ultimately, however, the team decides this would be wrong and they let the herder go.
Shortly thereafter, the SEALs find themselves hunted in the mountains by hundreds of Taliban fighters. As the title suggests, all but Luttrell are eventually killed. Luttrell somehow finds his way to another Afghan village, where the villagers protect him as required by their religious beliefs which require the protection of guests. Another battle ensues.

My Thoughts

My first thought about this film was simple: this was the Iraqi/Afghan film the public wanted to see. This film showed the hardships and hard choices these men faced. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything, but it doesn’t make the good guys into villains either. It also explains why they were there, both by showing how evil the bad guys are and how there are good Afghans too who need protection. Had Hollywood focused on films like this, rather than trying to slander and politicize these wars, then their track record wouldn’t be an unmitigated list of failed films. But Hollywood couldn’t help themselves and their box office results show the consequences. This film, by the way, made $143 million on a $40 million budget, and has blown away every other post 9/11 war film.

Interestingly, the film isn’t without an anti-war bent either. In fact, in the key scene, you see Navy SEALs debating the murder of a goat herder and his sons. Prior to the rest of the 9/11 films, this likely would have shocked and outraged American audiences, but here it doesn’t feel anti-American at all. To the contrary, it really ultimately shows that these guy choose ethics and morality over common sense, and that kind of makes you proud seeing how much they risk to do the right thing.

The film also shows Americans getting overwhelmed and killed. That too would have been shocking before the other 9/11 films, but here it just goes to highlight the horrible missions we are asking these guys to undertake. This isn’t a statement on American troops being unprepared or incompetent, it is a statement of the odds these men face every day.
So while the film has some things that would have shocked us in 2000, today they don’t. And even then, I think they wouldn’t have outraged us in 2000 so much as they would have just felt more “realistic.” The reason these things don’t outrage us, unlike similar things in other Iraqi films, is that the ethics, patriotism and motivations of the Americans are never at issue in this film. There is no suggestion that these guys want to torture people, that they are trying to steal oil or other resources, or that they hate all Afghans because they are racists. These are genuinely good guys caught in a crappy situation. That’s why audiences responded well to this, but rejected the rest of Hollywood’s Iraq/Afghanistan sewage.

My next thought is that I hated watching this film. Don’t get me wrong, this was a strong and compelling film. It was well shot, well acted and well written. The highs are high and the lows are low and the film is super thoughtful. It is an excellent film.

...but, I hated watching this film because of the subject matter. It sucks thinking that these guys, with so much to offer the world, died fighting such animals. It sucks knowing that these creatures will continue long after we’ve gone, killing and torturing and destroying everything and everyone their sick religion doesn’t like. It sucks knowing that there are great men of courage, like Mohammad Gulab, who saved Luttrell and protected him, who must now fear being destroyed by the animals who form the Taliban. That’s not how life should be.
Basically, this is a great film with a very depressing and outraging subject matter. It makes you proud of the good guys, but depressed that the bad guys probably will one day prevail, and it makes you sick that these people exist.

Finally, I will say that the one problem I had with the film was that I have seen so much in reality TV on the Discovery Channel (and the such) that it’s hard for films to have the same impact. It’s hard to compete with the real thing, and many of the documentaries about the men who fight these wars are very compelling. This one, however, does hit home as it is a true story, and they do end the film by showing you the real men... a very sad moment.

Thoughts?
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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Movie Executives Are Despicable People

Hollywood studio exes are assh*les! Really? They say racist and obnoxious things? SHOCKING!!! They hate the smug stars with whom they work? I'm stunned! Actually, I'm not.

For those who don't know, a group of hackers calling themselves Guardians of Peace ("GOP") hacked Sony's computer network and made off with a ton of information related to their studio operations. This includes employee data, phone numbers, aliases used by stars, complete scripts, budgets and emails. The suspicion is that this was done by North Korea in retaliation for Sony releasing a film called The Interview, in which Seth Rogen and James Franco play film producers who attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un... who had his uncle eaten by dogs and looks like the nerd who sings "Gangam Style."

Anyway, for the past few weeks, they've been releasing these emails bit by bit, freaking out everyone in Hollywood. What the emails have shown is that much of what we suspected about Hollywood is true: it is populated by vile, hateful people. Indeed, read the following and tell me if you see a pattern:
● Sony pays its male executives a lot more than they pay their female executives.

● Sony lobbies against Google (which they call Googliath) out of spite in retaliation for Google not doing enough, in their opinion, to stop pirates.

● More movies make money than Sony admits publicly.

● Many of these emails were written by illiterate executives who don't know the difference between words like lose/loose, their/there/they're, and to/too. Foul language is the order of the day.

● Sony employees don't like Adam Sandler films, which they consider "formulaic"... though I wonder what they produce that isn't formulaic.

● Studio execs called Angelina Jolie "a spoiled brat" and complained about "the insanity and rampaging spoiled ego of this woman." When one exec was told to get Jolie's project under control, the response was: "DO NOT FUCKING THREATEN ME"

● The head of Sony pictures only knew Michael Fassbender because of the size of his penis, which he had seen on screen.

● They describe Leonardo DiCaprio as "actually despicable."

● Despite contributing heavily to Obama and supporting him, studio execs engaged in a racist discussion in which they tried to come up with a list of films Obama must like, each of which involved black actors.

● Studio co-boss Amy Pascal implied that actors adopt black orphans as accessories, and she described stars looking to work in television instead of in film as "the new black baby."

● Studio execs called Kevin Hart, who is black, "a whore."

● Studio execs described David O. Russell, who directed American Hustle, as "a loon" who "got in trouble" for feeling up his teenage transgender niece.
And so on. In response to this, these executives have claimed that these emails are not who they really are as people. Yeah right.

I find this interesting on many levels. First, the most obvious is that these studio execs are clearly odious people. They are hateful backstabbers who lie, in-fight, and think nothing of openly racist behavior. Yet when confronted with their own shameful actions, rather than being shamed, they claim "this isn't who I really am!" That's delusional. Of all things, you are the person you act like in private among people you view as confidantes.

Further, keep in mind how liberals react to suggestions of racism. When it's someone they don't like, they feel happy convicting you on the basis of their own belief about what must be in your mind. The slightest hint of verbalizing something as these people have done would bring instant groupthink howls that the person must be an unrepentant racist, followed by calls for termination of employment and social blacklisting. Yet as these are good liberals who give money to Obama, this will be excused with an apology. Is it any wonder, the public no longer buys claims of racism from leftists? Also, is it any wonder that leftists think everyone must be racists, as they clearly are?

Next, how blind do they need to be to attack a Sandler film for being formulaic, but somehow not see that every... other... film... they... produce... is formulaic these days? Not to mention, how do people who can't spell or choose their words correctly end up with power in the film industry?

None of this is surprising. Hollywood loves to be smug and liberal, but every time the curtain is pulled back we see evidence of racism, sexism, and corporate privilege. We see hypocrisy, perversion, and the worst traits of humanity offered up as evidence of superiority. This is just more of the same; it is nothing new, and it explains why Hollywood has devolved to the point that it can no longer tell a good story... because the shit floated to the top.
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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Where Were You in ’85?

by ScottDS

My, my, my, where does the time go? It seems like just yesterday I was researching 1984, which is considered one of the best years for movies. As we move into 2015 (and with no hoverboards in sight), let us revisit 1985. As usual, the list mainly consists of genre pieces – nothing too prestigious!

Back to the Future – [sigh] This movie. It seems to be more popular now than it was upon its release 30 years ago. It’s an American classic, with a smart screenplay, fun characters, memorable dialogue, a soaring music score, and a wonderful “what if?” story at the center of it. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Michael J. Fox plays teenager Marty McFly who travels back in time in a DeLorean and endangers his own existence. If you ask me politely at a party where alcohol is being served, I might just quote the damn thing near-verbatim! “Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth's gravitational pull?”

Better Off Dead – I joined this particular cult rather late, having seen it for the first time 10 years ago. Check out Andrew’s review for the plot details. Needless to say, I enjoy the hell out of this movie. The whole thing just has this cool low-key vibe of a first-time writer/director (Savage Steve Holland) playing around with the ideas in his head. It's just a shame Holland is stuck in Disney TV land. The characters are likeable, Diane Franklin is adorable, some of the gags are downright bizarre, and one highlight is David Ogden Stiers as John Cusack’s dad… he plays it with the perfect amount of deadpan. “The K-12 dude. You make a gnarly run like that and girls will get sterile just looking at you.”

Brazil – Terry Gilliam’s dystopian masterpiece features Jonathan Pryce as a lovelorn office drone. As a design student, there are a handful of films I turn to when I need inspiration and this is one of them – it’s one of the most elaborate and detailed movies ever made. The screenplay has some genuine intelligence and wit (gotta love Tom Stoppard’s wordplay) and the acting is generally excellent… though I must admit things get a bit bonkers in the second half. Liberals and conservatives see each other in the film, and that suits me just fine! And the behind the scenes battles between Gilliam and the studio are the stuff of legend. “But I could be anybody.” “No you couldn't, sir.”

Explorers – Joe Dante’s sci-fi tale is fun for the whole family. Ethan Hawke (in his film debut) plays a sci-fi-obsessed teenager who’s been having dreams of a mysterious circuit board. After putting it together with his genius friend (River Phoenix, in his film debut), they realize they’re able to create a spaceship. With a third friend, they take the ship out one night and are intercepted by aliens. I loved this movie as a kid and it still holds up, but the ending just sits there. The studio didn’t let Dante finish the movie – the final version is a work in progress with characters and entire subplots missing. Having said that, the kids are likable, Jerry Goldsmith’s score is sublime, and Dante regulars Dick Miller and Robert Picardo show up, too. “If this is all a dream, what's gonna happen when we wake up?”

Clue – A genuine cult classic, back when the idea of making a film based on something as dumb as a board game was a risk and not Hollywood’s standard operating procedure!! I'm not an expert on much of Jonathan Lynn's work but of the films he's directed (including My Cousin Vinny), this has to be the best written of them all. The screenplay (by Lynn, from a concept by John Landis) is full of wonderful wordplay, the likes of which you don’t get very often today. The characters – obviously based on their game counterparts – are all given (somewhat) realistic backstories and the actors make it look effortless. And Colleen Camp has never been hotter! I first saw this film in Los Angeles, done Rocky Horror-style, with performers acting out the film on stage as it played on the screen behind them. “I was in the hall. I know because I was there.”

The Color Purple – This was Steven Spielberg’s eighth movie and to call it a change of pace would be an understatement. (It’s also the only Spielberg film not scored by John Williams). I confess I have yet to see it in its entirety – only bits on TV. Based on Alice Walker’s novel, the film tells the story of Celie Harris, a young black woman in the south during the early 20th century. Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey make their film debuts as Celie and Sofia, respectively. Per usual for Spielberg, the film is well-made and well-shot (at least from what I’ve seen) and, of course, the usual suspects wondered how a white Jewish director could make a movie about the female African-American experience. Some things never change. “I'm poor, black, I might even be ugly, but dear God, I'm here.”

Commando – I went through an 80s kick on Netflix a few years ago and I had so much fun watching this cheesefest! Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John Matrix – JOHN MATRIX!!!! – an ex-Special Forces something or other who has to rescue his daughter after she’s kidnapped by mercenaries… but does it matter? This is Schwarzenegger in his prime, just one year after The Terminator. There’s blood and explosions and crazy stunts and every conceivable weapon. And it might sound sacrilegious but this might be Arnie’s most quotable movie. He even gets in “I’ll be back”! Rae Dawn Chong assists Arnold on his mission and Vernon Wells plays the chainmail-clad bad guy, who gets one of my favorite lines: “John, I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes. I’m going to shoot you between the balls!”

National Lampoon’s European Vacation – This merely-okay sequel seems to get lost between the original film and Christmas Vacation. The Griswolds – Chevy Chase as Clark, Beverly D’Angelo as Ellen, and two new kids – win an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe and everything that can go wrong does. Honestly, I only remember a couple of things, including the roundabout gag (“There’s Big Ben! And Parliament!”) and that there’s more nudity than you’d get in a PG-13 movie today, because f--- the MPAA. Watch for some familiar faces, including John Astin as a game show host, Eric Idle as a bicyclist who receives the brunt of Clark’s buffoonery, and the late British comedian Mel Smith as a slimy motel clerk. Not much to say… maybe it’s due for a re-watch. “Honey, we're not normal people. We're the Griswolds.”

Death Wish 3 – For some folks, the Death Wish films are totally repulsive. For others, they’re pure entertainment, albeit with diminishing returns. Enter Death Wish 3, the last one directed by Michael Winner. It’s sleazy and dumb and you wonder how Charles Bronson’s character always manages to get into trouble, not to mention everyone close to him is raped or killed. This time, Paul Kersey is back in New York visiting an old war buddy… who is promptly killed by a local gang (whose members dress up like fans at a Warriors convention). The film becomes senior citizens vs. punks and Bronson is assisted by Martin Balsam as a WW2 vet who keeps a Browning machine gun in his closet. Obviously. And despite taking place in New York, the film was shot in England and it shows. “I'm going out for some ice cream... this is America, isn't it?”

Into the Night – This obscure curiosity by John Landis has always fascinated me for some reason. It tells the story of an insomniac (Jeff Goldblum) who encounters a young model named Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), who’s on the run from the SAVAK (Iran’s secret police). What follows is a strange series of capers, close calls, wrong turns, and other misadventures, all over the course of a night and a day in Los Angeles. Landis was known for casting other filmmakers in his movies and this one is no exception: Jim Henson, Amy Heckerling, David Cronenberg, Jonathan Lynn, Paul Mazursky, make-up FX guru Rick Baker, etc. Landis himself – who was dealing with the aftermath of the Twilight Zone tragedy – plays a SAVAK goon. The biggest name in the cast is actually David Bowie, who plays a sadistic British hitman. This movie is weird but watchable. “Why can't I sleep?”

Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure – Another childhood (and, uh, adulthood) favorite. Paul Reubens created the character of Pee-Wee Herman while at The Groundlings. This led to an acclaimed stage show, which was followed by a Saturday morning series for kids. This film – which also put Tim Burton and Danny Elfman on the map – tells a simple story of a man searching for his lost bike. Elfman’s score, inspired by Rota and Herrmann, is larger than life while the stop-motion gags and clown routines are pure Burton. Jan Hooks (who sadly passed away a month ago) is hilarious as an Alamo tour guide and the late, great Phil Hartman – who was part of the original Groundlings team – shows up at the end and also co-wrote the film with Reubens. “I'm a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Rocky IV – More wonderful 80s cheese! This time it’s Rocky vs. Russia as we meet Ivan Drago, the Soviet Union’s top boxer. He kills Apollo Creed in the ring and Rocky decides to fight Drago to avenge his friend and defend his country. This isn’t a movie – it’s a series of montages with some filler in between. But man, it’s so much fun. Talia Shire, Carl Weathers, and Burt Young return and Dolph Lundgren makes for an imposing presence. I still can’t get over Rocky’s birthday gift to Paulie: a robot. Yes, he buys the man a robot. I always assumed the robot was a Soviet spy and if the film were made today, the robot would no doubt get its own spinoff movie. “I guess what I'm trying to say is, if I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.”

A View to a Kill – The crappiest Bond movie until Die Another Day came along. Bond (Roger Moore in his final Bond film) investigates tycoon Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) who plans to destroy Silicon Valley which would give him a monopoly on the microchip industry. Everyone just looks tired in this one. Tanya Roberts is hot but doesn’t contribute much, Walken is uncharacteristically understated, and Grace Jones is…, well, she’s Grace Jones. Tech stuff is all top-notch but the rear-projection looks awfully dated, especially considering the technical leaps made in FX in this decade. Duran Duran’s theme song is a highlight, though. “You have exactly 35 minutes to get properly dressed, 007.”

The Purple Rose of Cairo – One of Woody Allen’s most charming movies, it tells the story of a Depression-era waitress who goes to see a movie, only for the lead character to notice her in the audience and leave the black and white movie screen for the colorful real world. Mia Farrow (naturally) plays Cecilia and Jeff Daniels plays Tom Baxter, an archeologist. Everything is fine until Gil Shepherd (Daniels), the actor who plays Baxter, learns of what happens. Cecilia must choose between the real actor or the fictional character. Woody Allen has said this is one of the few films of his that actually turned out the way he wanted it when he started writing. “You make love without fading out?”

Weird Science – Gotta love that Oingo Boingo theme song! John Hughes’ sci-fi tale features Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Gary and Wyatt, two nerds who use the power of computers to create their own perfect woman (Kelly LeBrock)… and then all hell breaks loose. Robert Downey Jr. shows up as the nerds’ nemesis and Bill Paxton steals the show as Wyatt’s older brother Chet. This film also taught a generation that the best protective gear is a bra on your head. I’m sure the inevitable remake will be twice as big and only half as good. “You know, there's going to be sex, drugs, rock-n-roll… chips, dips, chains, whips… You know, your basic high school orgy type of thing.”

Also: After Hours, The Black Cauldron, The Breakfast Club, Blood Simple, Cocoon, D.A.R.Y.L., Day of the Dead, Desperately Seeking Susan, Enemy Mine, Flesh + Blood, Fright Night, The Goonies, Jagged Edge, Lifeforce, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Pale Rider, Prizzi's Honor, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins, Spies Like Us, and Witness.

Will 2015 prove to be as memorable? We’re getting a new Jurassic Park, a new Terminator, and a new Star Wars. What year is it again??
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Friday, December 5, 2014

Film Friday: Monuments Men (2014)

I should have loved Monuments Men. It had so many things in it that I usually love. The cast is great. The idea is solid. The production values are first rate. And it's obvious this film was made with the idea of creating something lasting rather than yet another Big Shiny. But this film just bored me. Sad.

The Plot

Loosely based on the non-fiction book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History,” Monuments Men is the story of a unit of Allied soldier during World War II, who were assigned the task of tracking down all the great art works the Nazis plundered from the lands they conquered and to save them from destruction as the war came to a close and the desperate Nazis were destroying or hiding these things to cover their tracks.
The unit, called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Program, was created by FDR at the urging of Frank Stokes (George Clooney), who convinced FDR that letting the Nazis destroy the artistic history of Western Civilization would amount to a disaster, even if the Allies won the war. Stokes is directed to assemble a unit of museum directors, curators and art historians to find these treasures and make sure they are ultimately returned to their rightful owners. Joining him are the likes of John Goodman, Bill Murray and Matt Damon. The film follows their efforts.

On the other side of the story is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator who has been forced to assist Nazi Viktor Stahl as he finds and steals great art for Hitler and his cronies like Goering. Her brother is a resistance fighter who seems to specialize in stealing these items back.
The film is largely disguised episodic in nature with a loose narrative tying these events together. The main theme seems to be the resistance of regular soldiers to helping Clooney's team, and the plotlines tend to involve them learning the location of some missing art and then going to find it. Toward the end of the film, the team discovers that the Nazis are hiding vast amounts of art in abandoned mines. They must get to this art before the Soviets do, or the Soviets will steal it and take it back to Russia as a “war reparations.” They also capture Stahl and there are a couple moments where they briefly walk into combat scenes.

Why This Film Didn’t Work

The film received mixed to negative reviews. The Guardian said there were too many characters and the film never felt satisfying because it sent them all off to do little tasks, which often weren’t that interesting. The consensus at Rotten Tomatoes was that the film has “noble intentions” and a great cast, but they couldn’t overcome the “stiffly nostalgic tone and the curiously slack dialog.” Some Spanish rag called it “Hollywood war propaganda.” Yeah, leave Hitler alone, Hollywood! On the other hand, Rolling Stone liked it, calling it a movie about “aspiration” and “a proudly untrendy, uncynical movie.” Talk about true irony! Rolling Stone peddles pure cynicism and always has.
In any event, many of these critics have put their fingers on part of the problem: this film relies too heavily on its premise to sell the film rather than its execution. This was the same problem in The Family, which I reviewed recently, and with most of Clooney’s other recent films. Look, I like Clooney and I want to like his films, but in film after film it feels like he thinks that the concept itself is strong enough that he doesn’t need to offer more than his character walking through the film, discovering the concept and then acting upset or outraged at what he discovered, see e.g. Syrianna, Burn Before Reading, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Solaris, Michael Clayton, etc. These are all films with great concepts, solid casts and much promise, but they underwhelm as they end up more like a series of vignettes rather than real plots, and they rely on the audience feeling shocked that such things exist rather than feeling entertained by the plot.
Shocking audiences with something they never guessed existed before is a great start to any story. In fact, if you can find such a story premise, you are a major step ahead of all the formulaic crap out there. But that is only a beginning. For Monuments Men to be entertaining, they needed to develop the characters, put them into some sort of situation of conflict, and take us on that journey to resolve it one way or another. This film never does it.

For starters, as noted by the critics, there are too many characters for us to focus on which characters to care about. They try to make up for this by giving us actors who come with a history of goodwill already in place. This includes guys like Bill Murray and John Goodman and Clooney himself and Matt Damon. But liking the actors doesn’t compensate when I can’t tell you who the characters they played are or what they did. Moreover, I have to say that my goodwill for Murray and Damon is long gone and my goodwill for Clooney is waning.
So the audience doesn’t know who to care about or why or even what they really do that the others don’t. And that’s the next problem: we know in a broad sense what these guys do, but the film never manages to make it seem challenging. To the contrary, they seem to get tips from out of the blue. They never need to fight their way into those areas. The other American soldiers don’t seem to like them, but they don’t really stand in their way. The Nazis all surrender quickly and seem harmless as villains. Even the race against the Soviets is never presented as a race so much as a theoretical challenge.

The end result of this is that characters you don’t know or care about follow tips that seem to fall from Heaven and are always right to go pick up treasures with no genuine obstacles standing in their way. That’s not exciting... it’s not interesting. I honestly suspect that a documentary would have managed to be more exciting than this film turned out to be, and that’s sad.

Thoughts?
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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Ultimate Airport Dubai

Fifty years ago, Dubai International Airport was nothing but desert. Today, it’s a major modern transportation hub which sits within one direct flight of 90% of the world’s population. It also still sits in a desert and faces unique problems because of that. In Ultimate Airport Dubai, you get a fascinating look behind the scenes of this amazing airport and I highly recommend it.

Ultimate Airport Dubai is a reality television series that follows a group of employees around the Dubai International Airport (DIA) as they go about their daily jobs. These jobs include managing air traffic, managing the movement of cargo and luggage, customer handling, aircraft maintenance, and the construction of a brand new terminal. See, this airport, already the largest building on earth by floor space (360 football fields in size), is too small to meet Dubai’s ambitious plans for the future, so they are expanding it.
How much are they expanding it? Right now, the airport handles 340,000 flights a year, carrying 57 million passengers and 2 million tons of cargo... making it the third busiest airport in the world. They want to add another 15 million passengers a year. To that end, they’ve hired 18,000 construction workers to build the new terminal. This new terminal will then add to the 60,000 employees who already work at the airport. Interestingly, almost every single employee you see is an ex-pat, and the reason is that over 80% of the people who live in Dubai are ex-pats.

The story is fascinating.
Let’s start with the basics. This one has everything a “reality” show should have. It has amazing imagery; this airport is meant to impress and it does, and Dubai is mysterious. Moreover, the camera work gives you fascinating perspectives you will never get any other way. The writing/editing is solid. The drama is relevant to the topic too; everything focuses on the problems the employees face on the job. This is good because it results in a real feeling that you are being let into the true challenges of running this airport and solving its unique problems, rather than chasing tangential issues like the personal problems of the employees. The pacing is excellent too and the story never slows or drags. To the contrary, the story hits you so hard and fast that it's impossible to turn your eyes away. Additionally, there is such a wealth of detail crammed into the story that you feel like you need to watch it 2-3 times just to get it all. Finally, the people they follow are interesting and likeable, which makes the show enjoyable, and it has a solid, serious narrator who knows when to stay out of the action.
In fact, the people are really interesting and quickly make you interested in them. For example, you have the construction manager who is run ragged and must navigate a series of subcontractors who are much less dedicated than he is. You wonder if he will ever pull off his Herculean task. You have the engineering crew who must tear these planes apart and reassemble them. You have the cargo manager for whom every landing is a race against the clock as he tracks missing bags, the bags of missing passengers, missing cargo and other cargo that has gone wrong in some manner. All the while, he risks costing a plane its takeoff slot.
There are more too. You have the hostess who must juggle a million passenger complaints, violent passengers, sick passengers, missing passengers, and the complexities of rebooking people who often fall between the cracks and find themselves stuck at the airport. You have the customs officer who must be on the look out for drugs and black magic. And so on.
All of that makes for an enjoyable viewing experience. But the topic is the real gem. The story of this airport is a fascinating topic. It is a hidden world you knew nothing about before you set out to watch the show and it is an amazing world... a world of high engineering, human error, rules and the bending of rules, all taking place in this hidden world wrapped in the enigma of being set in Dubai with all of its idiosyncrasies and mysteries. So much of what we think we know about the Middle East isn't true here, but so much also is. And seeing it all take place amidst such intense opulence is just fascinating. This show is enthralling and I absolutely recommend it.

The one word of caution is that it’s not easy to find. It’s on NatGeo during the days right now, but seems to come and go. If you can’t find it there, it is on Youtube: Ultimate Airport Dubai.

Thoughts?
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Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!!


This is always a great time of year to thank God that you're not a pilgrim. Just kidding, pilgrims. But seriously, this is a great time of year to think about what you should be thankful for. We live in the greatest, most free, most productive country in the world. We are surrounded by genuinely good people who believe in community, charity, and fair play, and millions of people work tirelessly to make everything a little bit better every day. Who can beat that?

Besides that though, we should all be thankful for our friends and family and for the chance to make their lives better as they've made ours better. It's a great time to remind them that you love them, isn't it?

Personally, I'm thankful for my wonderful parents and my great sister, my incredible wife, and my amazing kids. I'm thankful to be alive. I'm thankful that I get to see and experience everything this world has to offer. I'm thankful for e-meeting all of you. And I'm thankful that we can experience things like joy and happiness and contentment.

So what are you thankful for?

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Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Thoughts on Ghostbusters III

by ScottDS

If there’s one question that seems to be on the minds of geeks everywhere, it’s “So when are we going to get another Ghostbusters?” followed by “Wait, do we really need another one?” It took five years to release a second film and we’re now 25 years later. The wheels seem to be in motion, albeit in super slow motion. But is it too late? Should sleeping terror dogs lie?

[long sigh] Okay, here it is. In the 90s, Dan Aykroyd (“the heart of the ghostbusters”) wrote a draft for a third film that involved a parallel version of Manhattan dubbed “Manhellton.” From what I recall, Hell was overcrowded and only the boys in beige could stop the incoming tide of undead. Pretty neat idea, and some of it was used in the 2009 video game. This movie would also involve a younger team of ghostbusters and names like Will Smith and Chris Farley were bandied about. The studio was interested, but Bill Murray was not. (This is going to be a running theme here!) Having expressed his disappointment at how Ghostbusters II came out, and with sequels in general, Murray said he’d only do it if he could be a ghost. To this day, the enigmatic Murray has been nothing but reticent: never saying “yes,” usually saying “no,” sometimes offering a cautious “maybe.” This hasn’t stopped Aykroyd, who’s been talking up a third film for the last decade and a half. (Not to mention Aykroyd doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to making sequels without important co-stars!)

This entire time, Ivan Reitman was still attached as producer/director. A few years ago, he was developing a script with two writers from The Office (yay!) who also wrote Year One (boo!). Meanwhile, Murray was still waffling, Aykroyd was still promising release dates, Reitman decided he wouldn’t direct it after all, and even semi-retired Rick Moranis said he’d do it if the material was good. And then Harold Ramis, who had been collaborating on and off with Aykroyd, passed away. At this point, people rightfully asked, “Is it time to shut it down?” For the studio, the answer was an emphatic “No!” As of this writing, Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Heat, has signed on to direct and is developing a script with writer Katie Dippold (The Heat, Parks and Recreation). It’s said to be a remake, featuring an all-female group of busters.

[longer sigh] This is… not a... hoooorrible idea... Feig loves the movies and doesn’t want to stomp all over them, which is why they’re doing it as a remake instead… but then why call it Ghostbusters? (That was a rhetorical question!) Or better yet, why couldn’t they simply have another group in another part of New York City that just happens to be all-female? Every sequel idea that’s out there seems to include the Ghostbusters as a large corporation, so it’s only logical that there would be other offices. As for the female thing, despite Feig’s comments, I think it comes across as a gimmick. It’ll inspire a thousand think pieces from the bloggers of the world and it’ll be the only thing people talk about. And it’s not as if their gender will be relevant. We’ll still get a smooth-talker, and a brain, and so on. Or maybe I’m wrong and the fact that they’re all female will be relevant to the plot, but wouldn’t that undercut the entire idea? The gender shouldn’t matter at all, hence my use of the “gimmick” label. Yes, women can be funny, and maybe if we stop asking the question, it’ll go away! And I understand the need for representation, but then why make them all female? How about a mix? And I’m sorry but there’s no story they could write that will satisfy everyone who’s angling for the all-female thing. “This movie is too feminist!” “This movie isn’t feminist enough!”

The story? I have no idea. Feig wants to make something scary but there’s definitely a template at work. Will we simply get another underdog story with a love interest and a powerful force trying to break through to our world and a climax involving a large, walking object? Given that this is a remake, it seems highly likely. And how do you redesign iconic props and vehicles? The designers of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films have done a decent job in my opinion, though more tech-oriented fans have completely excoriated them. Will the new proton pack look like something from the Apple Store, or will they continue with the homemade, jury-rigged look that made the first film so relatable? (It was a going into business story after all!)

As for actors, it’s anybody’s guess. I’ve seen a lot of names mentioned: Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Emma Stone, Rebel Wilson, etc. I have no wish list but only one request: get great actors who can do comedy. Don’t get comedians who happen to be good actors. I don’t want to see Melissa McCarthy doing the uncouth slob thing again. I don’t want Tina Fey playing just another version of Liz Lemon. And I don’t want to see Aubrey Plaza do… that thing she seems to do 90% of the time. You know what? I’d love to see someone like Cate Blanchett in something like this! Or Amy Adams! That’s the other thing… will the film feature actual adults, or 20-somethings… you know, for the millennials?!

My other thoughts are just nitpicking. The previous films are great-looking films, lensed by award-winning cinematographers. Will the new film have a distinctive look, or will it look like every other sterile, overly-bright comedy out there today? And the music… who will be the lucky musician to contribute an original theme song? (Anybody but Kanye!) Bear McCreary has my vote to do the music score. He was a protégé of the late Elmer Bernstein, who scored the first film (and almost every other classic 80s comedy) and his geek credentials are second to none. And in an effort to up the ante and compete with the superhero films, will the ending involve the leveling of the city in an orgy of CGI? Or just one building? (If there was any film where the makers could indulge in old-school techniques like cloud tank photography, this would be it!)

If I were president of Hollywood, I’d use a story I read about five years ago on an architecture blog. The writer came up with an idea involving NYNEX, the old New England telephone company (the “X” even stood for the unknown future, or the “uneXpected”). What if the ancient cables and trunk lines were actually the embedded nervous system of a fallen angel? The film would end with a climactic confrontation at the old AT&T Long Lines Building, a Brutalist-style structure at 33 Thomas Street. Pretty cool! But I’m not the president of Hollywood, just a geek.

I write this not to bitch, but to ponder. There are only a handful of franchises that I’m passionate about and this is one of them. And yeah, if they screw it up, we’ll still have the untouched originals (not even Star Wars fans can say that!). I remain cautiously neutral. What say you?
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Tuesday, November 18, 2014

The Lorax Teaches The Wrong Lessons

I had the misfortune of watching The Lorax (2012) the other day. In particular, I found myself shaking my head at the lessons it imparts. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, but it still annoyed me. What lessons? Read on...

Throughout my life, I’ve discovered something interesting about the human race: we are a bell curve in all things. I’ve seen this over and over in every field I’ve encountered. I’ve seen it in early adopter rates, grade distribution, IQ distribution, and even advertising theories on how to influence the public. It’s everywhere. And where it has been most interesting to me is in the discovery that the human race can be broken into three groups when it comes to societal benefit, for lack of a better phrase. The theory works like this:
● 10% of the human population are good people who drive humanity for the better. The most obvious example of these people are inventors, artists, writers, and others who provide things that enrich or improve other people’s lives. But this category isn’t limited to those people. It also includes people who start businesses, early adapters, the rare teachers who inspire their students, and even just average people who become mentors to others and make the world a better place. Big or small makes no difference, these are just people who make things better.

● At the other end, 10% of the human population are malicious people who do bad things. Interestingly, only some of these people realize that they are villains. The majority of these people think of themselves as the good 10%, even though their instincts are malicious and their actions and ideas are highly destructive. You can see an example of this, believe it or not, with Hitler. If you ever see interviews of his staff, you will be shocked to learn that Hitler genuinely thought he was the good guy. You see this sometimes with serial killers too, who think they are doing God’s work, with busy-bodies who delude themselves that their desires to control others come from their “deep sense of caring” about others, and with people who just get off on causing problems.

● The other 80% of the human population are essentially sheep. They do what they are told by the people they recognize as authority figures. Interestingly, however, these people often think of themselves as independent thinkers who “make up their own minds,” and they react very poorly to any suggestion to the contrary, even though they never actually think for themselves... as an aside, these people are the reason so much advertising simultaneously combines the ideas of keeping up with the Jones while ridiculously claiming that buying certain mass-produced products is only for “people who think for themselves.” Disturbingly, these people have a hard time spotting the difference between the good and bad 10%ers and will just as slavishly follow a vicious negative 10%er as they would a good 10%er if they come to see them as the authority.
So what does this have to do with The Lorax? Well, The Lorax very clearly demonstrates these groups and how they work. Unfortunately, it presents the wrong lessons in doing so.

The Lorax is the story of a 12 year old Ted Wiggins. Wiggins lives in a walled city made of plastic and metal. It contains no trees. The reason it doesn’t have trees is that the mayor, Aloysius O’Hare, sells bottled oxygen. He knows that trees provide oxygen for free, so he works hard to make sure there are none in the city. What destroyed the trees originally was a man called Once-ler. He was an entrepreneur who cut down the trees to make his product. In so doing, he ignored the objections of the Lorax, which was a being who protects the trees. Once-ler didn’t intend to cut down all the trees and he came to realize his mistake, but he did it nevertheless... all except for one seed. He gives that seed to Ted, who tries to plant it.
As Ted tries to plant the seed, the mayor tries to stop him. The mayor even warns the people that what Ted is trying to do is dangerous because trees produce sap and other pollutants. Upon hearing this, the public turns on Ted and essentially forms a lynch mob. But then Ted denies the charge and one of the locals decides that Ted is right. He states his support for Ted. Suddenly, the mob declares Ted to be right and turns on the mayor. The story ends happily.

Here’s are the problems.

First, this film clearly breaks into the three groups. Ted is a good 10%er who wants to make the world better. He sees a way to improve it and sets out to do so. The mayor is a bad 10%er. He knows he’s the villain and he thinks nothing of using evil means to get what he wants, which is profit and control. Once-ler is also a bad 10%er, though he is one who doesn’t understand his own evil. He thought he was the good guy, making use of the trees in a way he thought was responsible to produce a product that people wanted and employ people who needed jobs. It was only later that he learned his mistake. Finally, the public are exactly what the 80% are like: fickle, stupid, and mindless followers of whomever they see as the authority figure in their lives.

It is interesting to see a film break down these groups so clearly. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t know what to do from there. Thus, for example, rather than pointing out that Once-ler is a villain, it essentially sells him as a victim. It shows him suffering at “the mistake” he made and being imprisoned for what he has done. It also let’s him protest over and over that he never intended to kill all the trees, without ever requiring him to explain why he ignored the obvious warning signs and took no care to prevent the problem that was so obvious. In effect, it removes his villainy and makes him a helpless victim of a mistake and thereby forgives his villainy without true remorse or even understanding. This teaches the wrong lesson as it eliminates the element of personal responsibility so long as you had good intentions. But good intentions are not and should never be considered an inoculant to criminal or evil or immoral or stupid behavior.
Compounding this, the film then sells the audience the standard comfortable view of evil through the mayor. Essentially, the film tells the audience that evil is easy to spot because it knows it is evil and it knows that it’s actions are wrong. This is absolutely the wrong lesson to teach. Basically, rather than teaching kids that you need to watch all of your actions regardless of your intent, lest you act in an evil or rotten manner, the film sends the message: “Don’t worry, evil is obvious and unless you set out to be evil, you’ll be fine.”

Finally, you have the 80%ers. This is the truly obnoxious message. These people mindlessly followed the mayor for years. Once someone pointed out his crime, they absolutely failed to rationally assess the claim and to decide if they had been mistaken in supporting him. Instead, they turned into a lynch mob, determined to silence the dissident. This failure should have been highlighted in a major way to the audience. But the film didn’t do that. To the contrary, it excused the 80% by having them switch sides moments later when the worker announced that he had decided to back Ted.
But this represents yet another horrible lesson. Whether Ted was right or not, the 80%ers undertook no independent investigation. They never thought through what he said, looked at his claim or even demanded answers. They simply switched sides because they felt the herd had changed horses when the workman announced his decision to switch his support. This is a horrible lesson. The 80%ers need to be taught to conduct an actual analysis, not merely to follow whomever they see as the most authoritative person at the time. For all they know, Ted is an even bigger villain or fool and they are about to make things much worse. They don’t know because they never stopped to investigate. And the film rewarded this kind of false reasoning by letting audience know that Ted is right. Essentially, the message remains: just make sure you follow the nicer guy, when it should be to truly think for yourself for once. That’s how Hitlers get made, because evil, which is never bounded by reality or reason, makes much better promises.

This is my problem with this film. The film correctly identifies these groups but then acts as a sedative to calm the 80% into thinking that evil will be easy to spot and fixing evil is as easy as watching to see whom the crowd prefers. These are ridiculous messages to send.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

No article tonight.

Folks, sorry, but there won't be an article tonight. It's been a long week medically and I'm having problems getting anything written. I hope to be back to a normal schedule soon though. Thanks for your understanding and for hanging in there.
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Friday, October 24, 2014

Film Friday: The Family (2013)

Many critics anointed Robert De Niro as the greatest actor of our time. I never bought that. I thought he was great as a gangster or a cop, but that’s about the extent of his range. That said, I really wanted to see his latest film, The Family, because it seemed like one of those perfect setups for De Niro to do what he does best. It wasn’t. This film could have been hilarious, but the tone was all wrong.

Plot

Written by one of my favorite directors, Luc Besson, The Family stars Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as a married couple who just moved to France. It also happens that De Niro is a mobster (Giovanni Manzoni) who has turned states evidence against his entire gang and is now in the witness protection program. Dianna Agron and John D’Leo play their children and Tommy Lee Jones plays Robert Stansfield, their frustrated contact person with the FBI.
The problem is that while De Niro has given up his mobster connections, he hasn’t really given up his mobster ways. Thus, he is being moved from town to town until he blows his cover and needs to be moved again. In this instance, we see this right away as De Niro beats up a couple locals who refuse to address his concerns about water quality and about his plumbing. The rest of his family is no better. His wife sets fire to a store which offends her and her kids set up various scams at their school.

All of this is being done under the noses of the FBI agents who watch the family to make sure they stay out of trouble. That said, however, Jones knows the family is doing these things and he keeps threatening to end their government protection if De Niro doesn’t stop. De Niro responds by agreeing to stop causing problems and instead sets out to write his memoirs... memoirs the FBI cannot let De Niro publish.
With De Niro masquerading as an author, he gets invited to participate in a book discussion at the town hall. In the meantime, his son has published an innocuous saying in the school newspaper, which finds its way to America, where it is seen by the mob, who send killers to get De Niro and his family.

A bloodbath ensues.

Why This Film Didn’t Work

The most critical aspect of making any comedy work is tone. No matter how good a comedy may seem on paper, if the tone of the film isn’t right, the overall feel of the film won't be right. And this can be tricky. Indeed, the landscape of films is littered with “dark comedies” that couldn’t quite find the right tone. Even Ghostbusters would have come across as a weak horror film that couldn’t decide if it would rather have been a comedy if it been just a little more serious – much as Frighteners comes across.

At first glance, this film appeared to be another Midnight Run, a brilliant comedy that plays like a drama but keeps you laughing by hitting the right tone at the perfect moments. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close. The problem with The Family is that it never once comes across as a comedy.
The problems begin with the characters. To make characters work in a comedy, you either need some funny characters or you need serious characters who can be dumped upon at key moments. What De Niro did so brilliantly in Midnight Run was to play the role super seriously as he took sucker punch after sucker punch from the world around him. He doesn’t do that here. Here, De Niro plays a character who is smarter than everyone and knows it. His family is much the same. No one gets the drop on them and there is nothing they can’t handle. The end result is that they are incapable of providing anything funny to the script because you can't laugh at them.
Then you have the problem that everything else in the film is far too serious. The minor characters all act depressed and helplessly become the victims of whatever abuse De Niro chooses to heap upon them. The comedic value in that type of relationship is always how the minor characters fight back, something they cannot do here. Nor is there anything abnormal going on that could produce something unexpectedly funny or strange to make you laugh. The few interactions De Niro has with the locals, which were supposed to be funny, e.g. beating up the plumber, come across as cruel rather than funny. Tommy Lee Jones, who should play the “Droopy Dog” type character who gets roundly abused, doesn’t accept any abuse from De Niro and instead reacts as if this were a serious film. And none of the characters is inherently funny.

Even when something seems kind of funny, the film never follows up on it. For example, I did laugh when Michelle Pfeiffer set fire to the store as revenge; it was very unexpected and opened all kinds of doors of comedic potential. But rather than make this the focal point of the story, perhaps with De Niro freaking out about what his wife has done and trying to cover it up from the FBI, they just take it in stride. De Niro barely even mentions it. The locals never investigate. The FBI doesn’t find out about it. And the film just drops it. Ditto on the water system guy and the plumber. Not only is it not credible that there would be no consequences, but these are the extreme moments that are supposed to make us laugh and they just get dropped by the film. Even the manuscript De Niro is writing is tossed aside and never goes anywhere.
Perhaps the biggest sin tone-wise comes at the end. This was supposed to be a comedy, but once the mobsters show up in town, they slaughter the FBI agents, slaughter some locals, and come after the family. Obviously, dark comedies will have some darkness, but as I said, the tone is key. This bloody moment, which is entirely unlike everything else in the film, just doesn’t fit any sort of comedic tone. It's too serious, too bloody, and the consequences are disproportionate to what the film has prepared us for.

So what you have here is a film that may have looked great on paper. You can see how the setup alone is appealing, as it appeared in the trailers. The actors seem perfect for the role. The story contains many of the elements a comedy should. But in moving it from paper to film, this one fell apart because it never came near projecting a comedic tone. At best, it comes across as a weak action film with a few outrageous moments that may have been intended as humor. In fact, if you didn’t tell people this was meant as a comedy, I doubt the audience would have known.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Film Friday: Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011)

I despise the hillbilly slasher genre. Seriously, it’s always the same thing: some college kids stumble upon an inbred, deformed hillbilly who starts killing them for no apparent reason. These films traffic in mindless violence and clichés, and they are duller than dirt. In fact, they are so bad they can’t even be parodied because they are themselves parodies. Well, actually, it turns out they can be parodied. That’s what Tucker and Dale vs. Evil does, and I was really surprised by this film.

Plot

When I first heard of Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, I had no idea what it was about. This is one of those films with little marketing muscle and no box office reach; if you want to see this one, you need to go find it, so finding out what it is about is not easy. Even the description at Netflix wasn’t particularly helpful. But I liked the title and I decided to give it a chance.

The story opens by introducing some generic a-hole college kids. We then meet Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine), hillbillies from West Virginia. As this film appeared to be setting up a hillbilly slasher film, I almost turned it off at that point. Fortunately, I didn’t.
Within a minute or so, things change and it becomes obvious that Tucker and Dale are not quite what you expect. Yes, they are “country,” but they are also strangely urbane in many ways. In particular, they are clever. They converse at the level of college graduates. They express complex psychological and logical ideas. Their hillbilly background seems to have given them an inferiority complex, which they discuss openly. And they are headed to a “vacation home” they just bought in the backwoods to do some fishing and relaxing. These are not normal hillbillies.

As they stock up on provisions, like a six pound jar of pickled eggs, the group of college students pulls up at the same gas station and tries to buy beer. This leads to a series of accidental confrontations which freak out the college kids, making them think that Tucker and Dale are hillbilly rapist/killers. When Dale then approaches the group to speak to one of the girls, things go wrong because he’s holding a scythe and makes the mistake of following horrible advice about laughing at whatever they say. The college kids freak out and flee the scene.

A few minutes later, we discover that the vacation home is a fixer-upper which needs a lot more work than they originally expected. It also seems to have been owned by a mass murderer as the place is decorated in bones and there are newspaper clippings of killings on the wall. Tucker and Dale don’t seem to understand the significance of this, however, and they go fishing.
While they are fishing, they come across the college students again and they scare one of the girls who is trying to climb into the lake from a rock. She falls into the water and hits her head. They save her, but her friends, seeing this from a distance, believe Tucker and Dale have knocked her out and are kidnapping her. When they yell, “We got yer friend,” that seems to confirm the college students’ worst fears. They vow to get her back! This begins an amazing series of accidents in which most of the college kids end up dead in ways that hillbilly killers have used in other films, but which are purely accidental here.

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover.

Why This Film Worked

Parodies may seem easy because there are so many of them, but few of them are very good. This is because parody is actually quite difficult. The goal of a quality parody is to find some truth within the thing being parodied that the audience normally overlooks and then exploit that truth to poke fun at the original property. Some films are fairly good at this, like the first few Scary Movie films, which mocked various iconic horror scenes while telling their own story. Ultimately, those films weren’t particularly logical or realistic, but they were funny because they put their finger on flaws we overlooked in the iconic films they were parodying. Other parodies have been less successful. Take, for example, Meet the Spartans or any film from that set of filmmakers. These are putrid parodies because they simply repeat a story and throw in whatever gag they can think of into each scene whether they are connected to the scene in any way or not. Hence, most of the jokes were random, low-hanging fruit that just weren’t funny or relevant.

I had little hope for Tucker and Dale vs. Evil on the parody front. For one thing, the hillbilly slasher films are so poorly done as a group that they already operate as parody. Indeed, there’s very little left to laugh at in those films because you’ve already rolled your eyes at everything that can be parodied as you watched the originals. Moreover, it’s just not clear how you could make a hillbilly rapist funny or likeable enough to get you to invest in the character as an object of humor.
But Tucker and Dale vs. Evil did something fascinating. Rather than try a traditional parody, they flipped the story on its head and, in the process, created a heck of a parody that mocked all the usual silliness you find in hillbilly slasher films while simultaneously creating a film that was clever and funny in a totally unexpected way.

Indeed, this film gives you all the scenes you’ve come to expect: the hillbilly sodomy, the wood chipper killing, the chainsaw attack, the dead cop who failed to call for backup, the digging-your-own grave scene, etc.... but each of those scenes is twisted around in ways that are clever, strangely believable, and hilarious. Adding to this are the reactions of the hillbillies, which are polar opposites of what we’ve come to expect. Indeed, rather than being cold-blooded, inbred killing machines like a moonshine fueled T-900, Tucker and Dale are soft-hearted, sensitive, and terrified at what is happening. Dale doesn’t even like fishing because he doesn’t want to hurt a fish.
To give an example of what I’m talking about, consider the wood chipper incident. I can’t count the number of times some hillbilly tossed his victims into a wood chipper in other films. It happens here too, but not at all the way you expect. Here, Tucker is working with the wood chipper when the college students finally decide to “fight back.” To that end, one of the college kids charges Tucker, whose back is turned. Tucker bends over at the perfect time to pick up the next log for the chipper and the college student trips and flies right over his back into the chipper. Hilarity ensues as Tucker turns to discover the body and freaks out, and as the college kids entirely misinterpret what has happened as further proof that the hillbillies are intent on killing them.

Not only does this entire scene work perfectly in the sense of making total sense as to how it plays out and how each side reacts, but it’s also such an intensely clever and unexpected twist on a common scene from hillbilly slasher films that you can’t help but burst out laughing throughout the scene. Making this even funnier though is the priceless reaction of Tucker, who freaks out.

In fact, what really makes this film work are the hilarious reactions of Tucker and Dale throughout as they find themselves in a truly surreal situation with which they are ill-equipped to cope. Tudyk, who is one of the best voice actors ever (e.g. King Candy from Wreck-It-Ralph) and has played wonderfully enjoyable characters in shows like Firefly and films like Dodgeball, plays another gem of a character here. He’s the smart one of the two and he does indeed manage to grasp 99% of what is happening. Unfortunately, that last 1% is the killer as the conclusions he draws in each situation are simply dead wrong. This makes you laugh at everything he does.
Labine is new to me, but he plays Dale as a teddy bear with a crush on the college girl they save. He’s truly genuine and sensitive and it makes him incredibly likable. And the little romance that brews between him and the super sexy Allison (Katrina Bowden) is downright sweet.

And honestly, watching the creative ways the college students kill each other off by accident as Tucker and Dale try to stop them, only to be seen as having caused the deaths, is just consistently hilarious throughout.

This is one of those films that I expected to hate. I assumed it would be stupid and pointless and offer little more than a disguised slasher film. But it wasn’t. Instead, I found a film that is clever, engaging and hilarious. This is a film with characters you will like. This is a film that relentlessly mocks the hillbilly slasher films, but does so in such a good-natured, innocent way that you can’t help but enjoy the film.

I absolutely recommend this one.

Thoughts?
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Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: 47 Ronin (2013)

47 Ronin bombed... to put it mildly. Generally, films need to make twice their budget to cover all their costs. 47 Ronin cost $175 million to make, but made only $150 million worldwide. In the US, it grossed just over $20 million. Clearly, audiences stayed away in droves. But why? Was it because the movie sucked? Well, not really. You might find this interesting.

When 47 Ronin was marketed in the US, it was presented as Keanu Reeves leads a small army of samurai against a magical army of demons. Kind of a samurai version of The Matrix. Indeed, it had all the hallmarks of anime. In reality, however, this film is definitely not any of that. What this film is, is a retelling of the classic story of The 47 Ronin with hints of magic added for flavor.
Perhaps a brief history lesson is in order? The 47 Ronin (known as Chushingura in Japan) is a tale from Japanese history which defines the ethos of the samurai warrior code (Bushido). The story takes place in 18th Century Japan and it centers around 47 samurai who find themselves unemployed when their lord is forced to kill himself. Their lord had been tricked into this by a court official who made it appear their lord had done something shameful. This resulted in the emperor ordering the lord to kill himself and forbidding the samurai who guarded him from seeking revenge.
The result of this was that these 47 samurai became what was known as Ronin... lord-less samurai. This is a shameful thing because it means they have failed to protect their lord or that they bear his shame as well, neither of which is a good thing. Thus, their status in society has collapsed from the top (samurai) to the bottom (mercenary). It’s a bit like being forced out of the SEALs to find yourself working as a mall cop.

Despite being forbidden from seeking revenge under pain of death, these Ronin felt such a strong sense of duty to their beloved dead lord that they planned to avenge his death against the emperor’s orders. To that end, they waited one year. Then they met up, infiltrated the castle of the offender, and killed him. More importantly, once they had satisfied their need to fulfill their duty, they satisfied their honor by gathering in the courtyard and committing ritual suicide to comply with the emperor’s order.
Their example of duty over all else and the importance of honor over life defines the Bushido code by which the samurai lived and, consequently, this story became central to the mythos of the samurai warrior. In fact, this story is so central that it's been told many times in many forms, including plays, wood prints, dramas and films. And here it is again.

As I said above, Keanu’s 47 Ronin sounded like anime when it was marketed. It was sold as some battle for survival against a supernatural army. But that’s not at all what the film is about. To the contrary, the film was simply a retelling of the 47 Ronin story. So needless to say, that was the first huge problem audiences encountered – misguided expectations.
The second problem was that this film has the typical pacing you find in samurai films, which is much slower that modern audience like. It deals with the same themes of honor and duty, which also don’t resonate with modern audiences. The characters tend to be one-dimensional because they are obsessed with their mission. The dialog is minimalist, but philosophical, both of which run contrary to general audience preferences. And finally, the action is very, very deliberate and precise. This is not shiny Transformers; here, a single perfect sword strike has much greater value than a loud, obnoxious fight scene. The result was that this film was anathema to modern audiences.
So it sucked, right? Well, no, not at all. If you enjoy samurai films like those by Kurosawa or others, then you may very well enjoy this film. I love samurai films and have seen dozen and dozens... but they are an acquired taste. They tend to be slow and contemplative. They offer little dialog and less explanation. They are not action packed. What they offer though, is a beautiful look into the psyche of Japan just as some of our best Westerns offer a beautiful look into the American psyche. I doubt very many people in the current theater-going world will enjoy such films. But there are a great many fans of the genre.
On the issue of magic, by the way, the film added three magical elements to the traditional story. Reeves is a half-breed who may or may not be part demon. This, however, ultimately means nothing to the story except as a vehicle to get Reeves into the film. The film also has a dragon, but the fight scene with the dragon lasts about two minutes only. The biggest addition is that the evil lord employs a shape-shifting witch to carry out his dirty work. As with the others, this has limited impact on the story. Indeed, each of these elements, while no doubt reviled by purists, struck me as adding tiny amounts of flavor to the story and made it feel even more "cultural"... so to speak. Each is consistent with Japanese fantasy, each fit into the film rather than making the film fit around them, and none of the three took the story beyond its natural boundaries. So while this made the story more fantasy than history, it left its essence entirely intact while giving you some nice surprises.

All told, I recommend this film if you are into samurai films. I thought it was well done, well shot and well told. The actors were good. The dialog was decent. The story was well-known, but also added fresh elements. I would rate this as an above-average samurai film. But if that isn’t your thing, then by all means, stay away because the film offers nothing beyond that... this is a niche film, and that's why it bombed at the theater.

Thoughts?
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